What New York v. Houston Says About Houston v. Portland

ImageNow, one could call this a late post, seeing as it looks back at the Wednesday night game between the Houston Dynamo and Red Bull New York. But one could also call it early, because much of the focus goes to what the Portland Timbers can expect in an early (goddammit!) Sunday afternoon match against Houston.

Typically, there will be a frame for this kind of post – i.e. what I’ll do when I talk about matches: One Big Idea, plus as many little ones that seem worth mentioning (e.g. while I didn’t think much of Eddie Robinson as a player, I think he’s pretty good in the booth). Originally, this week’s Big Ideas was going to be a contrast between Houston’s Will Bruin and New York’s Bradley Wright-Phillips (hereafter “BWP”). In the end, though, I decided that adding to many words about New York/BWP (e.g. that he played a pure poacher’s role) would take too much time away from things Houston (e.g. how much deeper Bruin plays/played, how much more work he put into the build-up).

So, that’s that. Now, what the hell happened to Houston Wednesday night? (4-0, that’s what.)

To be clear, this wasn’t like Sporting KC’s same-score-line rout over Montreal last weekend. While I don’t doubt their overall dominance, most of KC’s goals game pretty late. New York v. Houston played out differently. The Red Bulls went up fairly early – arguably (at least by Robinson) against the run of play – and ended the game with a couple more. What made the game interesting was the way New York made the game interesting: they found some really novel ways to fuck up – e.g. Dax McCarty dropping a soft-serve pass at the second-half kick-off or Jamison Olave getting caught in possession (or bulled off the ball) by Giles Barnes, both of them for one-on-one chances. And that’s what’s interesting…

…Houston failed to capitalize on gaffes by a New York defense whose gaffe-pronedness rivals Portland’s. Will Bruin fired wild, Giles Barnes got to where he didn’t trust him (eh, to read in a little) and the rest of the team looked like they….just missed Brad Davis a whole friggin’ lot. So, they’re a bit snake-bit on offense. About 319 minutes or so’s worth of snake bites, in fact (should be more, actually, with time added). Call that one for the plus column.

So, their offense was shy, but the defense….oh, the defense. It ran the gamut from loose to atrocious. I’ve read snippets about a powerful New York attack, but what I saw was a confused Dynamo defense.

Credit to New York: they play a highly-competent quick combination, these neat little four-to-five pass sequences, often orchestrated by Thierry Henry, that can free players who are alert to the opportunity (e.g. Eric Alexander, of all people). It was good and all, but Houston amplified the effectiveness of these attacks by having their fullbacks and outside mids press way up toward New York’s players on the flank. Pressing can be good. Or it can leave enormous gaps – we’re talking full-sized Aussie football arenas with seating included – behind Houston’s flanks. Add a gap between the central defenders – four, five yards, say, which is where BWP set up more than once – and that accounts for at least two of New York’s goals. It allowed more chances besides. So, yeah, pockets five yards deep on both flanks, and often: that is hella havoc-wreckign space where a team can work all kinds of magic. Or score four goals.

It was worse than this, actually. When the Orange got the blues (sorry; just came to me), Houston’s team defense played more like those little cones for drills in practice (hardly helps their jerseys match). New York only had to maneuver this “zone defense” of static objects. And they did.

One last thing – and this is arguably the biggest piece – Ricardo Clark ran himself daft in this game. As my notes have it: “Clark carrying the team on both sides of the ball.” He carried them till he couldn’t – e.g. when his head snapped toward the turf and his eyes went glassy around the 70th minute – then he walked off in a daze. I tried to find an update on the injury, but the Web is being uncharacteristically tight-lipped: nothing on Houston’s site (probably by design; though I did spend time trying to figure out why I should care about an injury to Brittany Bock, till I figured out Brittany Bock was a woman who played for the Houston Dash. And I do care; it’s just not relevant to the current topic; but, yeah, god speed and get well Brittany!) and not even a google search yields much besides previews. Clark’s status is, for me, a major question and not just for how he plays (active and well), but where he plays. As much as I don’t wish ill to Mr. Clark, his not being there Sunday morning could do wonders for Portland – a la, what Alonso Osvaldo’s disappearing act did on the only game in which Portland got the offense going. Four more Timbers goals would be…good, even without the log-sawing satisfaction.

If Clark is there, the Timbers can always gun for those pockets of space behind the full-backs. That assumes Houston is dumb enough to open those up two weeks running, but it could happen. Sadly, that could be neither here nor there with the way Portland has played in crosses in 2014, never mind how they’ve got behind defenses – or failed to (something someone else talked about here). The only plus side is the fact that Houston let New York’s players in behind fairly close to the goal – i.e. the final ball didn’t have to be a cross so much as a ball played across the face of goal. Now, that’s something the Timbers can do.

And, ideally, Houston will also hold to that same, static “pressure” defense, which actually translates to pushing your players further up the field and spacing them with nice, inviting lanes all around. Seriously, it was that bad for 10-15 minutes in the first half. Seriously.

Now, the attack. It’s hard to say what Houston will bring Sunday. They had a couple moments on Wednesday, particularly with Barnes getting loose on the right, but the Dynamo didn’t get much for penetration: from what I remember, Bruin shot mostly from outside the 18. More to the point, though, Bruin drifting back toward the midfield stripe should be OK; he combines all right, but it’s one-touch drop-off stuff and not likely to unlock a defense that’s not pushed too high (something Portland hasn’t done a ton this year) and he’s not that great one-on-one, either. Just keep Bruin out of the box, or keep a body on him when he’s in there and it should go all right. Boniek Garcia didn’t do much Wednesday and I expect the Twin Terriers (Will Johnson and Diego Chara) will wrap him up all right. And that’s it, really. Andrew Driver; Corey Ashe; Tony Cascio; Giles Barnes: sure, they can all do something, but it’s not been a great year for Houston. The Dynamo did look better when I watched them play FC Dallas, but that was earlier this year before Davis limped away to god knows where (any word, by the way, on that guy? What is with the mysterious omission, MLS Injury Report?).

I don’t want to say this is Portland’s best chance for a win this season. That’s like pointing to the goddamn fence in baseball and only a soused legend like Babe Ruth can lay down that kind of shit. Besides, that’s like inviting the gypsy to give Portland the evil eye with the way they’re playing. But Houston is vulnerable, their confidence shot and – not that I wish this on anyone – but Rico Clark could be out. And that would open up space on the field from whence Portland was most effective in this definitively ineffectual season.

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